Have you noticed the crazy amount of connecting we do? We have seemingly endless ways to connect with other human beings. I don’t need to list them all for you, but just in case you haven’t been paying attention: facebook, twitter, linkedin, eharmony, gatherings simply to do the all important work of networking, face time (thank you, Apple), texting, picture sharing, email, voicemail, snail mail, instant messaging, and of course, the one thing you never leave home without–your phone. Oh, and how could I forget blogging!?
While we have more opportunities to connect than any culture before us, we may be the most lonely generation ever. We have not learned how to fully connect with another person. You could sit in your house all day and “connect” with hundreds of people through these different mediums, but none of them would actually bring you into physical contact with another person, and at the end of the day, you would still feel lonely. We are starving for a place to belong. While internet communities and social networking sites can play a positive role in our lives, they should never be a substitute for real, face-to-face relationships or community.
Your community is the network or web of relationships you find yourself consistently investing in, and it is also those relationships that consistently invest in you. Because we are made in God’s image, and because God is Triune–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–we are incredibly relational beings. We do not function as God intended when we are not within a community. The Triune God is a perfect social reality. He exists in relationship. Therefore, Christ-followers ought to be leading the way in forming good relationships. Are we using the tools of this culture to lead the way, or are we simply following their lead?
Community is a fundamental need for people because it is where identity formation takes place. You cannot become who God made you to be without community. The community you choose to involve yourself with is foundational to the person you will become. You saw this when you were in high school. Nerds, jocks, skaters, preps may be stereotypes, but they happen because people have common interests and need to belong to a group of people. Over time, the label fits because a person will learn to identify with his or her “group.” Being a part of a group, belonging to something bigger than yourself, is a good and healthy desire.
This desire was given to us by God. We want and need to belong to a community. In the Old Testament, God chose the people of Israel to be His people. They learned who they were by belonging to this community and the nations around them were to learn who God was through them. But as we can read, Israel often failed in these two regards. When Jesus came, He set out to establish a new people of God. Through His death and resurrection he destroyed the barriers that limited God’s people to one ethnic group or one specific culture. The people of God today are known as the Church, and they have the same goals. The Church is the place where we learn who we are and where the world learns who Jesus is.
In one sense, the Church is all of Jesus’ followers for all time, past, present, and future. In another sense, the Church is universal, meaning it includes everyone on earth at the present time who is a disciple, or follower, of Jesus. Finally, there is the local expression of the Church, which is normally referred to as the local church. While we belong to the Church in each sense, it is on the local church level that community and belonging play such a key role in our identity formation.
This is the reason the Church is so important. You will often hear people say they do not need to go to church to follow Jesus. The church is not a place to go. It is a people to belong to. In community, we learn our values and our worldview–the framework of our identity. But simply going to church is not enough. This is like watching one of those stereotypical groups in high school, even sitting with them in the lunch room, but never actually saying anything. Going to church is not as important as being the Church. It is when we start to play our role in the church and invest in the community that we really begin to understand who God made us to be. And when we do that, people will recognize who Christ is. So, not only is the local church crucial for a person’s continued growth in following Jesus, but every person has a role to play in the Church. Sunday morning is set aside as one time during the week when a local expression of the Church can come together to worship God. The rest of the time should be about living in a community. This means investing in relationships.
When you think about it, the Church is exactly what we are looking for as we strive to connect with people. The next social media craze is not really going to connect us with another human being. God has already provided exactly what we need. We can belong to something bigger than ourselves. Belonging to a community means we each have a role to play. This is how God intended it. It is His story and He has invited us to play a role. As one theologian put it, “It is only in relationship–in community–that we are able to reflect” the character of God. If Christ-followers do not live in community, the world will not be able to see God.